The “dreamers” we heard about in Israel were parents and grandparents from Morocco, Algeria and Ethiopia, and their shared dream was to one day return to Jerusalem.
It was our own dreams of returning to Jerusalem, at least for a visit, that brought 10 of us from Rhode Island to Israel with the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project this past July.
At Mount Herzl National Cemetery, in Jerusalem, Israeli author Miriam Peretz told us about emigrating from Morocco to Israel in the 1950s. As a young child in Morocco, her father had dazzled her with stories of “Jerusalem’s streets that flowed with milk and honey.” When she arrived in Jerusalem at age 10, she was surprised they did not.
As we left the cemetery, where Peretz’s two soldier sons are buried, I noticed a sign that read “Ethiopian Jews Memorial.”
The mission of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) is “To empower women to change the world through Jewish values that transform ourselves, our families, and our communities.” Our Rhode Island JWRP partners sponsored an extra day in Israel for our group to visit our sister city of Afula, where several community projects are funded in part through the philanthropy of the Rhode Island Jewish community. It was on this last day in Afula that I felt most connected to the Jewish value of tikkun olam and to the JWRP manifesto:
Inspire a woman, you inspire a family.
Inspire enough families, you inspire a community.
Inspire enough communities, you can change the world.
It was in Afula that I learned the meaning of that sign at Mount Herzl, the significance of the Ethiopian Jews Memorial.
Afula is a rapidly growing northern Israeli city in the Galilee region and is a sister city of the Providence Jewish community. It is also home to a large population of Ethiopian immigrants and young Israelis of Ethiopian descent.
One of the projects that the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island helps to fund is the SPACE program of the Ethiopian National Project. SPACE, or School Performance and Community Empowerment Scholastic Assistance, offers academic support through small group tutoring, leadership skills and preparation for military service. All Israelis must serve in the military, and this preparation helps Israeli Ethiopian youth become eligible for more positions.
At a large modern high school, we joined a group of students who had chosen to give up free time during their summer break to attend the SPACE program.
The Ethiopian immigrant teens we met came from a population that faces many challenges, including living in low-income areas where schools often lack enrichment activities and sufficient educational support.
SPACE addresses these issues by boosting education at middle and high schools to help the students improve their socioeconomic outcomes later in life. I know from having my own teens at home the positive impact that academic and social support has on their lives, and I was impressed that these kids were mature enough to seek it.
We met with the teens in small groups and played a game that broke the ice and helped us to get to know them a bit. Interacting with them and hearing about their lives and the cultural traditions that their families maintain was a highlight of the trip for me.
ENP regional director Rachamim Melaku recounted his personal years-long journey from Ethiopia to Israel by way of Sudan. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel this way in the late ’70s and ’80s, and more than 4,000 of them died on the arduous journey. The Ethiopian Jews Memorial was established in 2007 to remember those who lost their lives along the way.
Jews in Ethiopia had dreamed of coming to Israel for generations. Melaku’s grandmother was one of them – she spent her life in Ethiopia dreaming of Jerusalem and sharing that dream with her children and grandchildren. She never made it, but Melaku did, and he now runs vital programs for the descendants of all those who had kept the dream alive.
After a quick lunch stop to devour some of the most delicious falafel we’ve ever tasted, we headed to another program site partly funded by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. The Joint Distribution Committee’s Parent-Child Play Program is an early-intervention initiative established in 2014 that helps parents in need of professional intervention to interact with their babies in a way that promotes healthy development. The program provides reso@nce and a home intervention component.
We were able to meet two of the mothers involved, and they shared emotional stories of how deeply they and their children have benefited from the Parent-Child Play Program.
Children in Israel are seen at health centers for routine vaccinations and checkups, and only referred to a pediatrician if a medical need arises. Adjacent to the JDC Parent-Child Play facility is a health center where infants and toddlers are screened, which provides a coordinated approach to intervention and diagnosis, if needed. The earlier a child receives needed services, the better the outcome, and the facility is open to any family that needs its services.
It was heartwarming to see the impact that our Jewish community in Rhode Island has all the way across the world – services that we help provide are truly transforming lives and futures. The ancestors of these children were scattered around the world and dreamed of returning to Jerusalem. As a community, we owe it to those Jews to make sure that after generations of longing, they thrive in Israel.
ELIZABETH ATALAY traveled to Israel with the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project in July.